The guitar is classified as a plucked chordophone of the lute family. On a chordophone sound is produced by the vibration of a string. The lute family are stringed instruments with a body and neck. Strings run parallel to the soundboard and extend beyond it along a neck or fingerboard.
Strings are made from materials such as animal gut, nylon, steel and brass; silk, wire and horsehair have also been used. Prior to the 18th century strings were predominantly made from lamb gut. More recently strings made from nylon are used because they are longer lasting and retain their pitch better.
A major influential development that took place in guitar design in the United States was the use of strings made of steel, as opposed to the gut or nylon used on Spanish guitars. As Evans observed “… all the main types of steel-string guitar now in use are essentially of American design, and were developed in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries” (1977: 220). Both the Gibson and Martin companies began to produce steel strung guitars by the turn of the century.
“Steel strings have higher tension than gut or nylon and so transfer more energy to the top [of the guitar] and thus produce a louder volume”. Furthermore steel strings “produce more overtones than nylon – giving a characteristic ‘jangling’ tone”. (Evans, 1977: p.220)
Nylon strings exert a pull on the guitar of around one hundred and five pounds. The increased tension of steel strings increases this pull to between one hundred and eighty five to two hundred and forty pounds depending on the gauge (thickness) of the strings. This gave rise to a need for greater strength in the guitar’s construction. In 1922 Thadders McHugh patented the “adjustable metal reinforced truss rod for the neck, which was fundamental to the development of the modern guitar” (Duchossoir 1981: 4). The truss rod, fitted into a groove cut in the neck of the guitar, counteracts “the tendency of the pull of the strings to make the neck bow” (Evans 1977: 266). The added reinforcement “permitted the necks of Gibson instruments to be considerably slimmed and streamlined for easier playing” (Duchossoir 1981: 4). Evans implies this influenced the tactile aspect of guitar playing saying that the narrower neck, “evolved to suit generations of country, jazz, folk and blues players, who find it easier to handle and more appropriate to their fingering techniques” (1977: 266).
The thinner neck of the steel-string guitar facilitates ease of playing – the stretches are not as big for the left hand as on a nylon string guitar. However the increased tension on the strings makes them slightly harder work for the left hand fingertips, especially for the beginner guitarist.
As the guitars are constructed differently the strings are not interchangeable. You can’t put nylon strings on a steel-string guitar or vice versa.
So which guitar is better for worship music? Nylon or steel string – the answer is, of course, neither is better; they are different. It depends what you want to do with the guitar. The nylon string and steel string guitars have a different sound and a different feel. I have both types of guitar and use them for different jobs. The nylon string has a more mellow sound that is particularly suited to classical music, Latin, flamenco and finger-picked styles. The brighter steel strings are good for strummed rhythm guitar styles and folk, blues, pop and rock.
Try before you buy. Get along to some guitar shops and try a few different guitars out. Take a friend with you, particularly one who plays the guitar, if you can; they can give you a second opinion See how different guitars feel and sound, and go for the one that you feel most comfortable with and prefer the sound of.
As the great, eccentric guitar player and composer Frank Zappa said “If you pick up a guitar and it says ‘take me, I’m yours,’ then that’s the one for you.”
Evans, T., and M. A. (1977). Guitars from the Renaissance to Rock
Duchossoir, André. (1981). Gibson Electrics. Milwaukee: Hal Leonard Publishing